I’ve always loved vintage camera equipment. The engineering and care that went into the creation of old cameras have always fascinated me. The science and chemistry of film development have also intrigued me. Who doesn’t want total control of their image from start to finish?
So, with all of that in mind, and some free time, I made the jump into large format photography. I bought an older Graflex Speed Graphic from an eBay seller for a reasonable price, Heiland flash and solenoid included and began to figure out the camera. The whole process of making an image with an old press camera is a slow one, but can be really rewarding. The only cameras that I had shot with up until this point were a few 35mm SLR’s, A Yashica TLR, and my trusty Hasselblad 500, so the switch to the Graflex was kind of a big one.
Remembering to set the shutter when using the focal plane shutter, and remembering to stop down the aperture after focusing on the ground glass ruined quite a few sheets of Kodak T-MAX before I was smart enough to slow down and think through every step. The shots came out pretty good, but there was something missing. I wanted to separate my images taken with this camera from ones that I could just as easily shoot with one of my other setups, but how? Through my reading on this very site, I discovered J. Lane Speed Dry Plates. The idea of shooting images with photographic technology from the late 1800s was obviously the way to go. I ordered a box of 10 plates and we were off and running.
Now, another question… Where to shoot the first shot of a brand new photographic medium? It would have to be a place that I knew well and had pretty good lighting conditions to properly expose an emulsion rated at ISO 25. I settled on the mouth of Fremont Canyon where it opens into Alcova Reservoir here in Central Wyoming near where I live. It’s an absolutely beautiful area and I’ve spent many a day hiking and boating at the lake and the surrounding area.
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After work one afternoon, I loaded up the camera and my dry plate holder and headed out. I had a spot in mind right on the canyon wall that was perfect for the shot. But, being early March in Wyoming, I still had to hike through a few inches of snow to get there. Once I got to the canyon’s edge, I set up the tripod and took a few light readings on the area I wanted to shoot. It’s hard keeping an old tripod upright in the wind and snow but no matter. It was the perfect place to shoot.
The striations in the rock shown by hundreds of thousands of years being cut by the Platte River, the juniper and ponderosa pine, the frozen lake all made for a great possibility of an image. I set the shutter to 1/30 and the aperture to f/16 and made the exposure. After hiking down and driving back to town, I developed the plate in Kodak Xtol for five minutes, fixed for five minutes, and let it dry overnight, completely overjoyed with the image that appeared. The next day I set up the enlarger and dialed in a contact print. It came out surprisingly well for the first one I’ve ever done, apart form a few tests of course.
Since then, these dry plates have become a go-to in my photography kit. They’re an absolute joy to work with. The next step will be to get a 4×5 enlarger, but, that’s another story…
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